Paying Attention

The question the teen writers at the library always have is “what do I write about?” They are looking for the old magical formula to find out where ideas come from. So recently, while doing a workshop on micro non-fiction, I can up with an answer.

“First,” I said, like I was some authority, a wise old grandmother, a famous author, “you take a walk. Preferably with a dog.”

The thing about walking with a dog, is that you can’t focus on the big picture. I’m an intuitive, a big picture person. But walking with Ben, my Golden Retriever, forces me to see and wonder about the minutiae that make up the world. We notice the birds, of course. The communal ones, like crows, cawing as the fly across the valley. The familial ones, like the eagles, who sit in the dead tree by the river. The solitaries, like the Great Blue Heron, who fishes in the oxbow but flies off as soon as he feels my eyes on him. I wonder about them all and about the dead trees the eagles and kingfishers alight atop. Who knew how important dead trees were?

Walking the dog, I notice the less inspiring things, too. Dead frogs and newts in the road. How much life is lost because of cars, I wonder? There’s scat – mostly raccoon. And of course litter, beer cans, McDonald’s cups, napkins, Dunkin’ Donuts bags. What is with humans and throwing trash out of car windows? One day, Bruce, my husband, and I were walking Ben when we came upon a napkin a raccoon had pooped on.

“Why’d he do that” Bruce asked pointing at the soiled napkin. “It’s not like he had to wipe his butt.”

I just shrugged. Wondering more about Bruce’s mind, than the raccoons. But I started to notice scat in close proximity to litter. A pile on a flattened soda can. Another leaning against an empty spool of fishing line. It appears that the local raccoons have a decided opinion of human litter and it is filled with raccoon equivalents to expletives.

I’ve often thought that world would be absolutely fine if humans just disappeared. The carrion eaters and the bugs and bacteria of decay are more important than we are. We might be top of the food chain, but in use to the world we are pretty close to the bottom. Then I saw a video on Facebook that pretty much said the same thing. After an initial catastrophe as our power plants and oil refineries exploded or burned out sending pollutants into the air, the world would slowly go on. Plants and animals taking over our houses and buildings. Everyone but domestic animals getting along quite well without us – thank you very much.

I honestly don’t know why people throw trash out their windows. Maybe I’m wrong about why raccoons deposit scat on our trash. I do think it would be nice thought, if the human race managed to live in such a way that our loss was a detriment to the world and not a blessing. The question is how to begin? And maybe also, is it too late?

Fun with Flash Fiction

I run several writing groups at the library where I work. Most of the kids have participated in clubs for years. I’ve watched them grow up. Been left behind as the moved on and went to college. I feel like I’m the one who never graduates, never moves on. Over the years, we’ve all – the students and I – written many epic novels. Some that never were finished. Many that never were finally shaped into a finished form.

This summer, we started writing flash pieces. Something that we might actually complete and finish. We started with stories under 500 words. Then we moved shorter and shorter. Six sentences. 100 words. 50 words. 25 words. Dribbles. Drabbles. Six word stories.

The teens were great at it. They could in 25 words, in even six words create a plot, a character, a twist. The stories were dark. It could be us. It could the prompts. It could be that in a few words, it’s easier to have a dark twist than a comedic, or romantic, or tragic one. I sat in awe of those kids wishing I had their creativity. But I too loved actually being able to produce something in just a few sentences or words. A complete thought, theme, story.

Here’s a story written from the prompt “Smoke hung so thick in the Library’s rafters that she could read words in it.” As you tell, it had been one of those weeks at the library.

The Impolite Library

Smoke hung so thick in the Library’s rafters that she could read words in it.

LIAR, LIAR, PANTS ON FIRE, it read.

Jen sighed. The Library was really developing a mind of its own, which was the whole problem with being a librarian at a sentient Library. “Smokes not good for books, you know,” she called out to no one in particular.

HOW ABOUT FLAMES THEN? The smoke reformed.

“Also not good for books.”

HOW ABOUT PEOPLE?, the Library said in its rather cryptic smoke signals.

Jen sat down at the circulation desk. The smoke was thinning a little. Now that the library had her attention, it didn’t need to billow quite as thickly. “Whose pants are you wanting to singe?”

A warm gust of wind blew the newspaper across the reading room. Jen hated it when the library sighed. She coughed, trying to clear smoke from her lungs.

THAT LIAR. YOU KNOW WHO.

            Jen thought about being difficult and saying, “No, who?” But she did know who the library was talking about, because his lies made so much steam come out of her ears, that she was probably the reason the Library was talking to her in smoke signals. Instead she said, “Yes, I do, but we cannot set him on fire.”

WHY NOT, the Library asked. THEY BURNT WITCHES DIDN’T THEY?

            The problem with a Library that had read every book within its walls was that it knew way too much history. Sometimes you just had to forget some of the things humans had managed to do to each other over the course of millennia.

“We cannot burn him at the stake,” Jen answered.

YOU COULD AT LEAST CALL HIM OUT AS A LIAR.

            “It’s impolite to call someone a liar to his face,” Jen explained patiently.

BUT IT’S NOT IMPOLITE TO LIE?, the library asked.

            Jen sighed. The Library was right. The Library was always right, but that didn’t make it any easier to be the librarian.

Let Us Be

Let us not be young girls
Ashamed of our bodies.
Let us be dragons
Reveling in wings and scales.

Let us not be women
Battling for our jobs.
Let us be dragons
Spreading our wings in flight.

Let us not be women
Begging for our rights.
Let us be dragons
Holding their feet to our flames.

Let us not be women
Fighting for our lives.
Let us be dragons
With wings and claws, scales and flames.

Ask yourself,
Why are they so afraid of us?
It’s because they know
One day soon
We will wake up
To who we truly are.

Organization for Curmudgeonly Writers

Other than columns for the paper and a local Zine, I haven’t done any real writing for the last eight months. Nothing on my novel, which seems to need an extensive rewrite and nothing on the website. So, like all good procrastinating writers I decided to spend sometime planning on where and how to start. And what better way to do that? I’ve been looking at planners and organizing, hoping to find the perfect one that I can spend hours writing in and thereby avoid actually writing. Unfortunately, planners seem to come in a few varieties – the wedding planner, a whole book to plan a wedding – don’t even get me started on that. There are also gratitude journals, I find annoying, whether because I don’t like being told how to feel – or because I’m not sold on the whole positivity thing, I’m not sure.  Then there’s the career and success planners, which have headings like “how i”m going to win today,” “what I can improve,” and “my successes.” It’s a safe bet, if I’m not feeling like having to record what I’m grateful for, I’m not interested in recording motivational self-talk either. I’ve decided, in order to avoid working on my novel, that i’m going to create my own day planner. It’s going to have a morning heading like – “Managed to get out of bed this morning. Now what?” and an evening reflection of “Did you avoid smacking all the annoying people today?” I’m sure it will be a best seller with the curmudgeonly feminist set.

The Zombie Apocalypse

I was racing to lock up the library and go home, when I stopped to jot down a to-do list for the next day. If I didn’t write down all the things on my mind, I’d forget them by morning.

  1. Work on the Book Club Grant
  2. Review the 3rd grade book club book
  3. Read the Teen Book Club book
  4. Plan the Zombie Apocalypse

There’s nothing quite like the to-do list of a librarian and a writer to give normal people pause.

Technically, I suppose one doesn’t plan the zombie apocalypse unless one is a zombie. As a mere mortal, I should be planning to buy brand name synthroid survive the zombie apocalypse. My writing friends tell me they want me on their team when the apocalypse comes due to my former lives as a nurse and a farmer. I do know how to stitch people up and grow things to eat. Still even though I might have a chance being useful in the zombie apocalypse, I can’t say reading or writing about it is very appealing. Give me a story with a kick-ass heroine and a sword and I’m happy, but I have issues with zombies.

At the library where I work though, the teens love zombie stories. So, I read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies with them mostly to get them to consider reading Pride and Prejudice. I figured if Elizabeth Bennett is my all-time favorite smart-ass heroine, how much better would she be with a sword? Unfortunately, I really wanted Elizabeth to have a smarter foe. If you are going to be great with a sword, you should be using it against someone with a brain. The teens loved the zombies and hated the regency romance. So, I’m planning a teen writing program on writing new zombie apocalypse stories. Maybe I can get the teens excited about writing a better zombie narrative. One with a little more brains.

Fortunately, I discovered a great book called Stem to Story by 826 National, a book of activities that combine writing and STEM. They have a chapter on “Rewriting the Zombie Apocalypse” by Julius Diaz Panorińgan that combines a great deal of actual science about how diseases spread with student’s creating new zombie stories.  If you think about it, there are loads of things that cause diseases and loads of ways for those diseases to spread. So, if we apply that to zombies, they can be created in multiple ways. They can be fought in multiple ways. Usually though, zombie narratives utilize some kind of disease metaphor. An epidemic occurs. The dead rise. They have an insatiable hunger. Their bite infects the living, creating more zombies, which need to be killed before they spread the infection.

Zombies always have an insatiable hunger and that is where the story could have so much meaning. What if zombies and their hungers are metaphors for something that really exists in this world? This is what I want the teens to explore in their new zombie narratives. If zombies are mindless empty creatures hungrily and greedily craving more, what can that be a metaphor for in our current day? What kinds of satirical or metaphorical stories can we tell about society as zombie narratives?

So, I’m planning the zombie apocalypse. I guess, we’ll see who is left standing when it’s all over.

Goat Tales

I took one last swipe at the floor with the mop and stepped out onto the back porch. I’d mopped my way out of the house and now stood looking through the open screen door at my clean and empty house. Moving day. I glanced through the kitchen into the living room. The front window sparkled in the early morning light. The rug was vacuumed, shampooed and free of any doggy odor. The house, bare of any trace of our residence, was cleaner than it had ever been while we lived there.

Bruce peeked past me. “Looks good,” he said as he picked up the bucket of dirty water and dumped it into the flower bed.

I filled the empty bucket with cleaning supplies and carried it, the mop, and paper towels to the back of the truck. Bruce followed with the vacuum.

The tail gate was down, exposing all our tightly and systematically packed possessions. Bruce slid the paper towels in an empty pocket of space, making the packing job even tighter. I lifted the vacuum into the one empty corner of space in the back of the pick-up.

“It can’t go there,” Bruce said, “that’s the spot for Anabel.” Anabel was our goat.

“Where’s it go then?” I asked trying to envision the diagram Bruce had drawn weeks before that neatly displayed how every box, piece of furniture, sock, shoe, pot or pan would fit into the truck for our 1000 mile move to Virginia.  He’d even duck-taped his shoes and socks inside the bumpers in order to not waste any space.

Bruce stared at the back of the truck, totally silent. I repeated the question. A rather sheepish grin spread across his face. “I forgot about the vacuum,” he said.

I looked at the 2 foot by 2 foot space neatly cleared in the right back corner of the pick-up. Just big enough for a little goat to stand, lie down, turn around. Just big enough for an old upright Hoover vacuum to fit. Obviously, not big enough for both.

I shrugged. “We can leave the vacuum.” We’d paid twenty-five dollars for it at a garage sale five years before. We’d definitely gotten our money’s worth out of it. “I’m sure the next renters wouldn’t mind inheriting a working vacuum.”

“We can’t leave a perfectly good vacuum.” The pitch of Bruce’s voice rose a few notches at the very thought of leaving behind the vacuum. “It cost twenty-five dollars!”

“Well, we can’t leave the goat behind.”

So, the vacuum went in the back and Bruce and I, our two dogs, Anabel all climbed into the cap of the truck for a 1000 mile trip to Virginia.

Bruce drove. Piper, the Border Collie, curled up at my feet. Finn, the Golden Retriever, lay on the bench seat between Bruce and me. Anabel stood on my lap, her little cloven hooves digging into my bare legs. Obviously, despite the heat, it wasn’t a good day to decide to wear shorts. Unfortunately, all my other clothes were packed in a box somewhere in the truck.

I folded Anabel’s back legs under her, making her sit like a dog. As I bent her front legs under her, trying to get her to lie down, her back end popped up. When I pushed her back end down, her front end came up. About the third try, I managed to push down on her back with my chest while pulling her legs under her and got her to lay down.

It lasted about fifteen minutes. Piper stood up to change places with Finn. Finn stood up to go down on the floor. Anabel stood up to join in the fun and we started the whole process over. Tiny round little black and blues started to appear on my legs.

After about the fourth time the dogs changed places, I saw a sign for a rest area.

“Let’s stop for a minute,” I said.

We leashed up the dogs and Anabel and headed to the dog walk area. Leaving everyone with Bruce, I headed to the bathroom. When I came out, a small crowd had gathered around the dog walk area. I wanted to get in the truck and leave, but I was attached to Finn and Piper. So, I braved the crowd.

The dogs, tales wagging, stared happily at their adoring fans. Anabel stood her back legs, trimming the bottom leaves off a young maple. Bruce handed me the leashes and headed to the rest room. As he walked away, a woman came up to me.

“What kind of dog is that?” she asked pointing at Anabel. Finn pulled on the leash trying to lick the woman’s hand.

“She’s a rare European Goat Dog,” I said as I turned and walked the dogs and Anabel back to the truck. I loaded everyone into the cab and slid in behind the steering wheel. We waited for Bruce to return from the restroom.

Women Can Like Dead Things, Too

So, a few years ago on Columbus Day when the library was closed, I did what all librarians do on a day off – I went to Barnes and Noble. At Barnes and Noble I disguised myself as a real person and went up to the help desk, where I said, “I’m looking for a book, but I don’t remember the title or author.” I’d like to say I did it just to see the guy’s reaction, but alas it was true. I heard the author interviewed on the radio, but hadn’t written her name or the title down.

I then did what everyone does in that situation. I tried to come up with some way to describe the book. “I think it has crematorium in the subtitle.”

“Oh yeah,” the Barnes and Noble guy answered, “I’ve heard of that book. And the weird thing is, it’s by a woman.”

What’s weird about that, I wanted to say. Women, after all, can love dead things as much as any ten year old boy. After all, in fantasies it’s often the queen running around saying “off with their heads.” And how many murder mysteries have little old ladies trying to figure out who done it?  And then there’s Dr. Brennan on Bones, who thinks a session of dissection and rearticulating skeletons is good family bonding. Or there’s one of my favorite reads, Stiff: the Curious Life of Cadavers by Mary Roach. But I restrained myself from climbing up on my soap box and waited while he tried to come up with the book title.

He searched crematorium and didn’t find anything.

I said, “It has smoke in the title. Like maybe…. Up in Smoke,” I added, which sounded like an excellent title for a book about cremation.  But that didn’t bring up any books in Barnes and Noble’s database.

“That’s okay,” I said. “I can look it up on the NPR website.” Because that’s what I would do if someone came to the library wanting a book they heard about on an interview and couldn’t remember the title.

“I’ll do that for you,” Barnes and Noble guy said, thereby earning brownie points and making me feel obligated to actually buy the book if he every managed to find it. Which, of course, he did.

The book was called Smoke Gets in your Eyes: and Other Lessons from the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty. I bought the book and because I am a woman who likes poking dead things with sticks, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes became one of my favorite books about the dead. It also contains one of my favorite opening lines. “A girl always remembers the first corpse she shaves.”

A week at Highlights

I just got back from a week at the Highlights Foundation Retreat center in Honesdale, PA. Stayed in one of my favorite cabins, no. 16. Hard as a try, it takes me six months of writing at home to accomplish the amount I get done in one week at Highlights.  It helps that I have my own little cabin.

I live in pretty rural area, so it’s not that the woods and deer are that much different than home.

Still, when I sit at the writing area in my cabin, spread my books out, have space to work scenes out, and enjoy three meals a day prepared by someone else, I get work done.  The food is excellent. The cabins are homey. And there are no distractions.

I first went to Highlights about five or six years ago for the Whole Novel Fantasy workshop. I learned more about writing in that week with Laura Ruby and Anne Ursu than I’d learned in my whole life up to that point. Now, I meet the writing buddies I made at that first workshop every year for our own writing retreat. If you haven’t been, check out their website.

This time, I did I final edit on my middle grade fantasy. Now, to start querying agents!

Storyteller, Truthteller

Whenever I give a tour of the library to elementary students, we always end up having a discussion about what the difference is between fiction and nonfiction. Fiction, the kids tell me, isn’t real, it isn’t true. I know this is how their teachers have explained it to them and every time I bite my tongue and debate with myself whether today is the day to tear that fallacy down. Do I really want the frustration of trying to explain to 2nd graders, and more importantly their teachers, that fiction may not be real, but is almost always true?

Alice Hoffman was quoted recently as saying, “I always feel that fiction is the truth and nonfiction is the lie.”(Writer’s Digest, Oct. 2017) Today that distinction seems more imperative than ever. We assume the world around us is reality. This life is our non-fiction. Yet, current times, reality as we know it, is more filled with lies than fiction. Our whole world is inundated with falsehoods, wishful thinking, fake news. Whereas fiction… fiction always reveals the truth. Even if it involves sorcerers and aliens, fiction always tells us the raw truth of emotions, relationships, values, and life itself.

There was a time when all the knowledge that came to us come through stories. A bard sang of heroes and adventure, teaching her audience of history, whether real or not. A story teller gathered people around a fire and told stories of beginnings. In stories, we found our place in the world, discovered who we were. Now, we dismiss truth by saying ‘it’s only a story, it’s only fiction.’

Laura Penny writes in her essay on culture:

“Only a story. Only the things we tell to keep out the darkness. Only the myths and fables that save us from despair, to establish power and destroy it, to teach each other how to be good, to describe the limits of desire, to keep us breathing and fighting and yearning and striving when it’d be so much easier to give in. Only the constituent ingredients of every human society since the Stone Age.

Only a story. Only the most important thing in the whole world. (Bitch Doctrine, 2017, p. 98-99)”

In a world where truths are called lies and lies are called truths, only stories have the power to save us. Do we have the courage to tell them?

 

 

 

 

What’s Really Real?

I love fantasy. The real stuff, with dragons and swords and sorcery. I want to read about good defeating evil. And magic. Give me magic – a young mage who with study, hard work, sacrifice and talent can overcome the wicked magician, the cruel overlord, the deceptive official. Yet, every once in a while one of those novels of magical realism catches me unaware. The Secret Horses of Briar Hill by Megan Shephard is such a book.

                The Secret Horses is set in England during World War II. Emmaline, the protagonist, has been sent to an estate in the country that is serving as a hospital for children with TB. When she arrives, she realizes there is another world behind the mirrors, one inhabited by winged horses. Only Emmaline can see the horses.

As the novel unfolds, Emmaline’s health worsens, the world of the horses is revealed, and slowly Emmaline’s own history unfolds, too. Megan Shephard spun a web of magic that caught me. I loved Emmaline. I fell into her world and the world of the winged horses. I believed. I hoped. I prayed. And in the end, I just didn’t know.

To build a world so real – and yet like a gossamer thread – so unreal, is a gift. It creates a story that lingers, both with what it shows and with what it keeps hidden.

I still like my fantasy high and swash-buckling. I like good to win, even when it’s a very close thing. But the books that leave me wondering – those are breath taking in their own way. If you haven’t, read The Secret Horses of Briar Hill, do. You won’t be sorry.